Repent or perish (Lk 13:5). Jesus meant every word he said.
God’s mysterious name, “YHWH”, a 4-letter Hebrew word, or “Yahweh” with vowels added for pronunciation, means “I am He who is” (CCC 206). It reveals God’s primary attribute: a pure Being who simply “is”; a Being whose existence gives rise to all things; “and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17). This awesome mystery that explains my consciousness, breathing, and writing in this moment – and your consciousness, breathing, and reading - is somehow revealed to Moses in the burning bush in this Sunday’s first reading.
The ancient Israelites did not take this biblical encounter between God and Moses lightly. Well aware of their privilege of receiving this revealed truth, Israel venerated God’s holy name as absolutely sacred. So much so they would refrain from saying it directly, choosing to address God as “Adonai” (HB), or “Kyrios” (GK), which is translated as “Lord” in English (CCC 209). (Therefore, when the New Testament writers refer to Jesus as “Lord”, it is effectively a recognition of his divinity, i.e. Jesus is God Himself (CCC446).) What is more, the Day of Atonement was the only day in the year during which the Jewish high priest was allowed to utter God’s holy name, Yahweh, and then only inside the Holy of Holies (Thomas Lane, “The Catholic Priest-hood”, p.38).
Connected to Israel’s veneration of God’s holy name is also a long history of its close encounters, interactions, and covenants with God. Yahweh is “the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” (Ex 3:15); Israel is God’s Chosen People who are “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” according to this Sunday’s second reading.
Being God’s people chosen from among all nations is a special blessing. But if the blessing is not received well, it can turn into a curse. This is the warning underlying Jesus’ parable in this Sunday’s gospel. Israel is the fig tree planted by God in a special orchard (Jer 8:13, Hos 9:10). It is expected to bear fruit. What fruit? The fruit of repentance. As God’s “first born son” among all nations (Ex 4:22), Israel has failed to do what God asked of it: becoming “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). Not only that, now that God has sent them their long-awaited Messiah, Israel, ever “a stiff-necked people” like its ancestors, refuses to receive him (Ex 32:9).
For its failures and hardness of heart, Israel deserves nothing better than being cut down like a fig tree that bears no fruit. But God’s mercy knows no bounds. As the Responsorial Psalm re-minds us, “The Lord is kind and merciful” (Ps 103:8). Despite Israel’s impenitence, God will leave the tree “for this year”, hoping “it may bear fruit in the future” (Lk 13:9). One last chance, in other words. Result? Sad to say, Jesus’ warning was left unheeded. In 70 A.D., soon after Jesus’ death, Israel’s sins finally caught up with it. Jerusalem had to suffer a devastating massacre and destruction at the hands of the Romans. Its Temple was completely burnt down and all sacrifices ceased. Repent or perish (Lk 13:5). Jesus meant every word he said.